After his work on Godfrey Reggio's famous visual arts experiment Koyaanisqatsi, cinematographer Ron Fricke parted company with the director and branched off to develop his own films in a similar vein. Whereas Reggio's follow-ups Powaqqatsi, Anima Mundi, and Naqoyqatsi have grown progressively preachier and less interesting, Fricke has quietly but successfully refined the formula with his two directorial efforts, the 1985 IMAX production Chronos and the 70mm extravaganza Baraka in 1992. The latter is my pick for the best entry in this small subgenre, but Chronos contains more than its share of visual wonder.
Running just 45 minutes, Chronos could be considered sort of a dry run for Baraka. Both borrow the basic concept and cinematic language from the original Koyaanisqatsi. These films are essentially wordless streams of beautiful imagery photographed around the world, some at regular speed, some in slow motion, and much in stunning time-lapse. Chronos spans from barren desert landscapes (both American and Egyptian) to bustling cities (New York, Paris, and Venice, among others), with a little bit of everything in between. There are pyramids and ancient ruins, museums, factories, shopping plazas, the relics of warfare, and even a ballet. Fricke's theme in this production is the flow of time, from ancient to modern, and from the austerity of nature to the frenzy of mankind. He also incorporates a particularly intriguing effect in this one, where some images are photographed in time-lapse and then slowed down frame-by-frame, forming expressionistic abstract paintings of light and color.
Like its siblings, Chronos is a gorgeous piece of visual poetry. Fricke's Baraka collaborator Michael Stearns provides the musical score which, like that later film, is a tad too New-Agey for my taste and in a number of places blatantly mimics Vangelis. The music supports the imagery well enough, but I prefer Philip Glass's more forceful and stirring compositions on the Qatsi movies. That's a minor complaint, however. While no home video format will ever be able to capture the true power of its visuals as originally projected on a monstrous IMAX screen, Chronos delivers some of the most breathtaking imagery available in High Definition and is worthy of plenty of repeat viewings.
The HD DVD:
Chronos debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of R&B Films.
The disc's navigation is a little frustrating. Although there's a main menu screen, it doesn't offer any set-up or bonus feature options. You can only find those by pulling up the interactive pop-up menu while the movie plays. Who thought that was a good idea?
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Chronos HD DVD is encoded in High Definition 1080i format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 15 gb disc. The film was an IMAX production with an original aspect ratio of approximately 1.44:1, but has here been modified to fill a 16:9 screen, a decision that will please some viewers but upset others. Before the purists get too indignant about it, keep in mind that most IMAX movies are photographed with intentionally loose composition. A proper IMAX theatrical screen should exceed the field of vision of most viewers, causing them to constantly look around to catch everything. That's an effect that obviously can't be recreated on home video, and even those IMAX DVDs presented in 4:3 tend to reframe many shots to better suit the smaller screen. The 16:9 framing for Chronos looks fine for the most part, with only one or two shots that I felt were compromised by the cropping.
The 1080i encoding is an odd decision, considering how the packaging boasts of the recent "comprehensive restoration process", and suggests that the transfer was repurposed from a broadcast HD master. Indeed, R&B Films has announced that their forthcoming Blu-ray edition of the movie will be remastered for 1080p. That should make an interesting comparison. For what it's worth, both 1080i and 1080p contain the same amount of picture detail; the only difference is how they're delivered to screen. Properly deinterlaced for a progressive scan screen, a film-based 1080i source can look identical to a 1080p encoding.
Regarding Chronos specifically, the picture is sharp and detailed, with robust colors and a good sense of depth. Film grain is present but well compressed. It's quite a lovely disc, with a couple of caveats. The first is that the source elements have minor dirt and specks. They're not severe enough to be bothersome. More distracting are some edge enhancement artifacts, most noticeable when dark objects are sharply contrasted against bright backgrounds (check out all the shots of Stonehenge for one example). The ringing is fortunately low-amplitude, but is persistent in many scenes. Also problematic is some minor instability and jitter in a few places, especially the end credits.
In any case, Chronos is a movie loaded with great imagery, and the HD DVD delivers it nicely by large measure.
[Update: Since first publishing this review I've been in contact with a rep from R&B Films. In our discussion, it appears that the 1080i labeling on this disc's packaging is largely a matter of semantics and interpretation of the HD DVD format specs. It turns out that the Chronos HD DVD is actually encoded on disc as 1080p24 video frames with 2:3 reverse field cadence headers for ease in decoding to 1080i by the player. This is exactly the same thing that all of the major studios do. A player can use the flags to output the video in 1080i format, or can ignore the flags and output the raw 1080p24 data (at the time of this writing no HD DVD players offer that function yet). I feel that labeling the disc "1080i" misleadingly implies that the data is stored in interlaced form and is somehow inferior to a true 1080p master. The R&B rep disagrees. For what it's worth, the Chronos HD DVD is mastered in the same manner as all of the film-based content released by any of the major studios.]
The Chronos HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in three flavors: DTS-HD 5.1, Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, or PCM Stereo. Note that the DTS-HD track is not the lossless "Master Audio" codec, but rather a lossy codec similar to standard DTS as found on DVD, albeit presented at a high 96/24 resolution here.
The soundtrack is solely made up of music and ambient sounds. The score is rather loud and piercing, and pitched a little high with disappointing low end. The 5.1 mixes feature a lot of subtle noises discretely placed in the surround channels to create an effective sense of envelopment.
Since the movie is so short, I watched it three times in a row to give each of the audio formats a try, attempting to compensate for volume differences between them. I found a decided improvement in fidelity and body with the uncompressed PCM track, but sadly that's a truly stereo mix with no surround activity. Of the 5.1 options, the DTS track had a small edge over the DD+. Despite the notes in the accompanying booklet that brag of the remastered sound quality, none of the soundtracks on the disc really knocked my socks off. They're all good and fine, but there's just a bit something missing from all of them.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – N/A.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.
For a release labeled as a "Special Edition" on the case, the Chronos HD DVD is surprisingly barren of special features, missing even most of the supplements found on the DVD edition. What we do get is mostly taken from the DVD, with some of the items tweaked for the High-Def format's enhanced interactivity.
Also included is a small booklet with some notes about the audio and video transfers. Missing from the DVD are five making-of featurettes, which I'm sure could have fit if the studio had used a dual-layer disc.
- Audio Commentary - Director Ron Fricke, production manager Alton Walpole, and musical composer Michael Stearns engage in a chatty but disorganized conversation about the movie. The participants obviously did not prepare in advance and seem to have a lot of trouble remembering details of the production. The most interesting tidbits have to do with the locations and the time lapse photography, which was amazingly achieved without computerized motion control.
- Locations - A pop-up globe will appear on screen to indicate where each shot was photographed. This feature can be run simultaneously with the Annotations, but the combination will feel awfully redundant.
- Annotations - Pop-up trivia notes provide information about each location. The trivia is written in a very small text that's difficult to read even on a large projection screen. Additionally, since the text changes with each shot, many appear and disappear too quickly to read. However, since there is only one bit of trivia for each location, the exact same item will reappear each time the film returns to that location. The implementation of this feature leaves much to be desired.
- Search by Location - The disc also offers the ability to jump directly to a location selected from a list in the menus. Unfortunately, if a location is repeated in the film, the menu can only bring you to its first appearance.
- Text Notes and Credits - Nothing terribly interesting here.
- HD DVD-Rom Material - I'll assume that this is a duplication of the additional production notes found in the DVD's Rom section, but at this time I don't have an HD DVD drive in my computer to verify.
Chronos is a beautiful film with high repeat viewing potential, either to sit down and watch in its entirety or to play in the background as video wallpaper. The HD DVD has very nice picture and sound, if a little shy of perfection. The bonus features are also disappointingly sparse and poorly implemented. Regardless, the disc merits a solid recommendation.
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